Women in Research: Isabel Abánades Lázaro from Spain

Isabel’s PhD graduation Credit: Isabel Abánades Lázaro

Isabel from Spain is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at Universidad de Valencia, Instituto de Ciencia Molecular, Spain.

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the Online Science Days 2020/70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

Her research focuses on defect engineering of Metal-Organic Frameworks for drug delivery and environmentally relevant applications.

Isabel will participate in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2021.

Enjoy the interview with Isabel and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science/Chemistry?

My motivation for science resides both in the desire to provide the base of knowledge to circumvent worldwide problems such as the treatment of diseases and the need for renewable energies, and in mentoring students to pursue a career in science.

As a kid I found it fascinating trying to find explanations of why things occur and I really enjoyed playing with Chemistry games and doing experiments with my sister and my cousins. Growing up I had inspiring high school science teachers, who further increased my desire for knowledge in the subject. Besides providing us with further information on topics for which we demonstrated interest (I won’t forget the coolest ever science poster that Alex gave after my essay on the big bang theory), they made Chemistry and Physics classes (and homework) fun. We had to carry out experiments, write scientific reports like if we were scientists and come up hypothesis and theories, what really made us think. But really think, not just learn a bunch of equations or definitions.
During my degree in Chemistry, I also had some teachers to whom I own in part my passion for science, research and teaching. They were highly passionate, both about the subject they were teaching, but more importantly about teaching itself. Alberto was my 1st-year biology teacher, and Tomás my 3rd-year inorganic Chemistry teacher. Not surprisingly, I choose a PhD that combined both topics: Metal-Organic Frameworks for drug delivery.

Who are your role models?

This question reminds me of an article that one of my role models, Dr Carol V. Robinson – the first female professor at the department of Chemistry of both the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford – wrote back in 2011 (In pursuit of female chemists). I agree with her that there are not many female chemist role models, besides Marie Curie, to whom we are introduced in school.

I highly admired Frances Arnold. Besides loving her science, I admire that she retracted a publication after finding irreproducibility of the results. She set an example, it is ok to be wrong, we are not perfect and we all make mistakes. I believe that admitting when we are ‘‘wrong’’ makes us indeed better people.

I look up to the advocates for equality and mental health, I really admire the work that Dr Zoe Ayres is doing with the mental health posters series on social media and I really like the points of view of Prof. Jen Heemstra. As it is stated at the end of a Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) video ‘good role models are not just good scientists, they are good people’. I admire my mentors, who have supported me and inspired me during my career so far, and who believe people go before science, but also do great science. During my PhD, I was lucky to have a supervisor, Dr Ross Forgan, who encouraged me to pursue my dreams, let me take initiative and propose the direction of my research. He was highly supportive of his student’s mental health and advised us to take a small break when he could sense that we needed one but we were not allowing ourselves to stop with research. I think that supervisors that prioritize their students’ well-being over science are not that common in academia, and I am very thankful to have done my PhD with him.

In a more personal and sentimental way, I highly admire my mother and her sisters (the five Lázaro women). They grew up in a family of limited resources in a little village (Renales, Guadalajara) and they had to travel over 20 kilometres per day to go to school, what at the time meant 2 hours to go and 2 to come back with the bus shutter. They all left home and moved to different cities when they were 14 years old because there wasn’t public transport to go to high school from Renales. They combined going to high school with work so that they could afford to live in the city. Although those were other times, they were just kids. I look up to them and I feel privileged, proud and thankful. They are strong and have taught me to be independent, fight for my dreams and to not give up. They have taught me to acknowledge my privilege and to use it to advocate for equality.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I started working on camps and workshops during summers since I was 16 years old. During my bachelor’s degree I tutored high school students in different subjects (from Philosophy to Chemistry), which further awaken my passion for tutoring, mentoring, and teaching.

I started my research journey at a young age and mobility has always been a key part of my academic career. I started a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at University of Alcalá de Henares (Madrid) in 2010, and participated in research projects within its analytical Chemistry department (summer 2012) under the supervision of Dr Maria Soledad Vera and with the immunology department of Fundacion Jimenez Diaz (FJD) in Madrid (summer 2013), under the supervision of Dr Victorial del Pozo. Vito’s mentorship has played an important role in my career, as she gives me both scientific and personal advice and we continue collaborating. During my internship with Vito, I also met PhD candidates and postdoctoral researchers – I remember with special affection Dr Carla Mazzeo – who mentored me in molecular biology techniques but with who I could discuss career paths.

I did the last year of my degree in Trinity College Dublin, including a ten month research project in the bioinorganic group under the supervision on Dr Aidan McDonald. Andrew Ure (2nd year PhD at the time) mentored me in the lab and gave me extensive advice about choosing and doing a PhD. Being in an international environment, attending seminars, group meetings, and being part of a research group on a day-to-day basis encouraged me to do a PhD abroad.

Isabel in the lab. Photo/Credit: Isabel Abánades Lázaro

I moved to University of Glasgow to do a PhD in Chemistry in 2014, focused on relating the surface Chemistry of MOFs with their performance as drug delivery systems. I was the third PhD student of Dr Ross Forgan and the first one of the drug delivery research line. Starting a project from scratch was really a growing experience to me, and all the Forgan group members were highly supportive. Ross Marshall was the first PhD student of Ross Forgan, and he was somehow my mentor in the lab, even though his project was not related to mine. At the end of the second year of my PhD, the Forgan group (the four PhD students at the time and Ross) went to MOF2016 in California. I won a poster prize, which I was not expecting at all. This prize encouraged me to do more and better. During my PhD, I was involved in teaching, both as a demonstrator of several subjects in the undergraduate labs and as a lab supervisor of summer and Master’s students.

Ross Forgan mentorship has been crucial to my career, as he always encouraged me to learn new techniques, to apply for funding and to collaborate. With his guidance, I applied for a Royal Society of Chemistry mobility grant and obtained funding to move to the University of Cambridge to perform a part of my PhD research in Dr David Fairen-Jimenez’s group. This experience was crucial for my development and career. I was trained by Claudia Orellana-Tavra and Sam Haddad in several molecular biology techniques and I learnt a lot, both from them and from David. Shortly after, I started a collaboration with Dr Victoria del Pozo and performed visits to the immunology department of FJD, where I did a research internship, to analyse the immune response towards our MOFs. Ross gave me independency in this collaboration, which I believe enhanced my project management skills among many other qualities. He was always open to listen to my research ideas, and the independence that he gave pursing them has helped me to develop my scientific thinking, which I believe it is one of the things that made me who I am.

Defects in metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) captivated me during my PhD. I used coordination modulation to introduce modulators (drugs and surface functionality) to the MOF structure during synthesis, which resulted in highly defective structures that performed better than non-defective MOFs. As a drug delivery of materials scientist, I did not study the defect Chemistry of MOFs at a molecular level (by synchrotron resources). I decided that I wanted to further understand the coordination modulation process and to learn synchrotron techniques to elucidate the molecular level of defected MOFs in relation to their synthetic conditions. Meeting Dr Carlos Marti-Gastaldo in EuroMOF2017 after my talk at the young investigator symposium, I decided to write ‘defective Titanium Metal-Organic Frameworks’ (DefTiMOFs) and apply for a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship in his group (FuniMAT), which happened to be in Valencia (Spain), just three hours by car from my home town. I graduated in 2018 and after a short postdoctoral stay in Dr Forgan’s group and I joined to Dr Carlos Marti-Gastaldo’s group (FuniMAT) in October 2018 as a postdoctoral researcher. In May 2019 I started my Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship in FuniMat, where I am the principal investigator of the project ‘defective Titanium Metal-Organic Frameworks’ (DefTiMOFs) and here I am!

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

I have always struggled with comparisons, and hence I find it difficult choosing a project over another. I really like all the projects I have worked on. I really enjoyed my research internship in FJD, the role of exosomes in Asma. We isolated these tiny vesicles from the blood of human donors, and the whole isolation process seemed the coolest thing ever to me at the time.

I have a special appreciation for my PhD project entitled ‘The effect of surface functionalisation on cancer cells internalisation and selective cytotoxicity of zirconium metal-organic frameworks’.
The interdisciplinarity of the project is something that really captivated me, as it was constant learning of completely different skills. The project involved the organic synthesis of different functionalised modulators, the design of protocols to introduce them into the MOFs surface during synthesis, the post-synthetic modification of the MOFs’ surface using the modulators functionality. We related the effect of surface functionalisation on the materials’ colloidal dispersion, on their degradation and drug release kinetics under simulated physiological conditions and on their selective cytotoxicity. In collaboration with Dr Fairen-Jimenez’s group, we studied the effect of surface functionalisation on cancer cells internalisation pathways and efficiency. With Dr Victoria del Pozo we studied the biocompatibility of the materials and the immune system response towards them. This project had a great outcome, finding relations between surface Chemistry and endocytosis pathways, cytotoxicity, or drug release kinetics, and resulted in anti-cancer selective materials in vitro.

I really like Defective Titanium Metal-organic Frameworks (DefTiMOFs), the first (and only so far) project of which I am the principal investigator. In DefTiMOFs we are developing thoughtful synthetic protocols to study the role of different variables during MOFs coordination modulation, to ultimately understand the factors that drive the formation of defects in Titanium MOFs. The project involves both the synthesis and extensive characterisation (including synchrotron techniques) of the materials. I find the synchrotron facilities quite cool and I have really enjoyed visits to the synchrotron. Finding relations between all the synthetic variables and the properties of the material is something that I find exciting. To me, it is like a puzzle, in which you have to perfectly match all the pieces to understand the process. If you are missing a piece, then it will not make sense. We are also studying the potential of our defective materials for applications of environmental relevance, although this part of the project is in an earlier stage.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

I think I feel immense pride in making my family, friends or mentors proud. This is probably because their faith in me is one of the walls that keep these thoughts contained.

I am proud of myself when I am the change that I want to see in the world: When I speak up about discrimination and when I stand up against it, when I speak my truth out-loud and I advocate for a change in the system, even if it means to be ‘the trouble one’. I am proud when I mentor students in the lab and they send me a text asking for career /personal advice months after, or when I do something (even little) that makes other people life’s easier.

I am very proud of my work when I sense that it can be of use to the community or that it helps to understand a process. I am happy when people cite my publications (not because of the metrics, but because my work was of use or relevant to someone). I hope that my research will have an impact on society, providing information to battle cancer and climate change. Hence, I am proud when it receives recognition, especially if it is something unexpected, like the poster prize in MOF2016.

I was very proud that my hard work writing DefTiMOFs [Defective Titanium Metal-Organic Frameworks] – while finishing a PhD, closing projects, moving countries – was funded by the European Research Council. I was immensely happy when I was nominated by the European Commission to attend the 70th Lindau Meeting (Interdisciplinary). I started thinking that I had made something wrong with the final application and I was almost convinced that I was not going to be selected to attend. The Lindau meeting selection has made me immensely happy and proud and it is a shout out to my impostor syndrome, as to me it meant that the committee considered my work is relevant in a wider extent than my research field.

What is a “day in the life” of Isabel like?

The truth is that I always tried to make every day different from the previous one as much as possible. A day in the life has varied quite a bit due to the pandemic, and I am not sure how to reply that question anymore. I have never been a morning person, but during the pandemic, my biological clock changed and I am surprisingly waking up around 7.30 am, without an alarm! I often start the morning by having a quiet and paused coffee while reading emails or organising my thoughts and tasks for the day. Shortly after I do 10-minute yoga stretch.

If I have to read or write I try to this at home as much as possible; my productivity increases when I am alone. If I am mentoring a student in the lab, we often meet at 10 am and leave at 6 pm, although depending on the experiments I stay longer.

If not and if I do not have early experiments, I spend one or two hours writing manuscripts or analysing data at my home office. I am usually at the lab my 11, if I have something important then 9 or 10. The experiments and meeting vary a lot from day to day and depending on the stage of the project. I set up or work up synthesis, and obtain characterisation data in the morning and after lunch, but I go the scanning microscope in the afternoon (my favourite time is 16 – 19.00 hrs.), as then I head home or to the gym from there. DefTiMOFs involves a lot of data analysis and correlation and depending on how systematic the analysis is, I either do it at home or at the university. Before the pandemic, I tried to organise my experiments in a way that I could spend one day writing/analysing data at home and other days fully doing lab work. If I am inspired and motivated, I admit that I can spend very long hours working, and the working-at-home day often becomes a 12-15 hours shift packed with phone calls or coffees with friends and family during breaks.

With social distancing restrictions, I am now going to the lab for about 2-4 hours per day during the morning, depending on the experiments and I do all the computer-based work at home. If I do not have an experiment to run, then I work from home and I cook, clean, water my plants, do yoga, paint or speak with friends/family over the phone during breaks.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

What I seek to achieve in my career is related to my motivation for science. I aim to provide the base of knowledge to help circumvent science-related world-wide problems, and I am to mentor students advocating for equality and diversity.

I would like to have a small research group in the future so that I could provide individualised mentorship. For me, people go before science, and so I would like to mentor students in a healthy life-work balance environment and advocate for mental health, equality, and diversity proactively.

Ideally, the group will be focused on the design of materials (not only MOFs) for different applications, including drug delivery, but others such as water remediation, gas storage and energy conversion. I would love to have the different research lines enhanced by collaboration with advocate-for-change scientists so that members from the group could do exchange programs to learn different skills, and they will be encouraged to actively manage collaborations and to start new ones.

I know that there is still a long way until I might achieve full independency in academia, and I know that there is in fact always the possibility that I could change my mind in the way, and there is nothing wrong with that. Of what I am sure, is that will do outreaching activities to motivate students to pursue a career in STEM under equality and diversity guidelines.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

When I am not doing research-related activities, I am often spending time with my family or friends. I also do other activities such as painting (mostly watercolours in combination with dried plants), reading, writing, doing yoga or taking care of my plants. I also enjoy giving a second life to things I spent some time restoring furniture and doing handcrafts for decorations. I love nature, so I often go outdoors for walks and to discover new places. I travel a lot, I have friends all around the world and I try to visit them every once in a while and I have loads of visits too! Living in Valencia, I spend a big part of my free time at the beach (mostly doing yoga or with friends), especially during summer, with Saturdays and Sundays (if not travelling) being full days at the beach.
I am involved in outreaching activities with different associations, such as the 11th of February (International Day of Women and Girls in Science) or girls4STEM. I participate in science festivals and give outreaching talks in schools among other activities aiming to promote science in the general public and to overcome the gender imbalance and inequality in STEM.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / Chemistry?

I encourage them to never stop trying and to not listen to those that say that you will not accomplish your dreams. People who did not try hard enough will most likely tell you to stop trying. Please, never compare yourself to others as a way to validate your personal growth. We are all different; we all have different circumstances that make our learning paths simply non-comparable. Compare you to your prior self instead, see if you have grown, see you are doing better than before, and always understand your circumstances and accept yourself the way you are, but with space for improvement. Don’t be harsh on yourself, and try to find a lesson in every ‘failure’. Speak your truth up, but conscious that it is your truth, not the truth. And please, please, stand up against discrimination of any kind.

If you are interested in doing internships don’t hesitate to contact research groups, if you want to learn new techniques, do not hesitate to propose collaborations. Chose good mentors, and seek advice and help whenever you need it. Find your voice and don’t be afraid to propose your ideas. If you really want something, go for it! Science needs women, we need you!

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science?

I love Metal-Organic Frameworks and I think they have been a breakthrough themselves. In the MOF field, I think one of the biggest breakthroughs will be the precise synthetic simultaneous control of defect Chemistry and functionalisation of MOFs at a molecular level. Defects play a key role in the materials properties and subsequent application. As introducing modulators in MOFs synthesis often results in defective structures, controlling their incorporation could result in the simultaneous control of functionalisation and defect formation. I believe that the universal rationalisation of defect formation in MOFs – the type of MOF, synthetic conditions, type of defects, distribution, and density – could result in the ‘a la carte’ synthesis of materials with outstanding performance in different applications of environmental relevance: i.e water decontamination, gas storage and separation, energy conversion, catalysis, photocatalysis.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

In Chemistry, the number of female and male PhD candidates is similar in Europe, while the number of female professors drastically drops down to ca. 14 percent. Why?

In my opinion, there is still a lot that could be done. This interview times up with the paper by Tomas Hudlicky, recently rejected due to the response in the Twitter community. The manuscript supported that diversity is bad for organic Chemistry and condemned the equality and diversity measures to be disfavoring the most qualified candidates (I assume, white men). While the twitter community raged about the publication, unfortunately, I have heard comments like this more than once in the workplace. I believe that valid tools should be provided by universities to really tackle discrimination. For example, anonymous questionnaires regarding equality and diversity being made about the supervisors (but never seen by the supervisors) could rise if any misconduct or mistreatment is taking place.

Mentors are essential to the development of a career. A proper mentorship program could also help to retain females in academia. A more flexible and less demanding work environment is essential. The ‘publish or perish’ phenomena might be one of the reasons keeping females from staying in academia, as it often demands long working hours. I have heard supervisors say, ‘If you want this paper, forget about your private life’. I believe that to assess this, we should change the system. Being permanent positions related to metrics, it can feel that having a healthy work-life balance is something utopic until you reach a permanent position.

About Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as a research specialist at the Advanced Imaging Center at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus in the United States. She did her PhD studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell. She loves to develop and build tools to image, probe and manipulate biological structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.

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